Preserving the unique in us
When a child resists the pressure to conform in 'the real world'
Our middle child has been very sad and anxious recently. I didn’t really notice that something was amiss till she broke down and cried while we were winding up after dinner at a restaurant. We were with extended family and her aunt was talking to her, asking questions about school and friends to get to know more about her. Our child turned to me to say that she didn’t want to go to school the next day and when I didn’t seem to get the gravity of her feelings, tears began to roll down her cheeks.
Aliza rarely cries. When she is upset, she gets restless, she grunts and complains, she may stomp her feet and walk out of the room, but tears are uncommon. I called her to sit next to me and tell me what was bothering her so much.
“I don’t know, Mamma, but I don’t want to go to school tomorrow," she repeated. I wiped her tears and held her close. She is 12-and-a-half-years old.
We often have very busy phases as a family. Our days get too long and over- packed with work, commuting, hosting and visiting others; and even though we seem to be enjoying ourselves, as a family we end up exhausted.
Aliza took a day off to rest. Then another. This did not rejuvenate her. Something had hurt her and she had withdrawn into her shell. Because she had enrolled for an additional sports coaching programme, I urged her to return to school for the sake of her beloved football. She broke down again, unable to put a finger on what was making her so anxious. She couldn’t sleep through the night any more. When I would leave her alone to change into the school uniform, I would return to find her trembling and in tears.
Our happy child had become very sad.
I let her be, allowing her to seek solace in the books that her sister and she have filled their room with. I picked up my own books to look for guidance on how to reach out to our distraught child. We abandoned the idea of going to school altogether, and she began to accompany me everywhere I went for work.
There is always love to fall back on. Till we knew what else we could do to heal, we were going to stick together. And hug each other many times a day.
Aliza began rereading the Harry Potter series. Sitting on the stairs in the middle of the living room, she would smile to herself and occasionally laugh out loud at moments in the book. She reminded me of my own line—I’m depressed but I’m happy.
I picked up Franny And Zooey by J.D. Salinger and remembered Franny returning home for a weekend from college and having an emotional breakdown. “I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete—that’s what scares me," she shares with her brother Zooey.
I opened my dog-eared copy of The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck and chanced upon the chapter in which the author recounts being a miserable 13-year-old at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. After feeling inadequate and wretched for two years, he finds the courage to drop out of the school that everyone else seems to fit into seamlessly. The chapter is titled “The Risk Of Independence".
I read out two pages to Aliza, sharing with her that she wasn’t alone in how she was feeling. As she began to open up to us, we discovered that our child was exhausted from disillusionment. She was experiencing a sense of loss.
Aliza loves football, but her coach and peers make her feel that as a girl she is never going to be good enough on the playing field. She knows they are wrong. Everywhere around her, she is discovering an adult world segregated by gender and divided over religion. She is disappointed. She refuses to be confined by artificial boundaries.
She loves to study, but in class, she feels alienated from friends hurtling towards their teenage years as they practise talking about love and sex in a language borrowed from the various American series they watch. She feels disconnected from conversations about fashion, gadgets and hanging out. Teachers inadvertently intimidate the seventh graders, warning them that their childhood is behind them and they must prepare for “the real world" now.
Aliza resists this pressure to conform. She isn’t attracted to being cool. She isn’t willing to surrender her imagination and her innate wisdom. Yet, as a child on her own, she is paralysed by this predicament.
“It’s not just school, Mamma," Aliza shared with me one morning, in response to my repeated questions about what exactly she was experiencing. “I think it’s about home also. No one notices the middle child. Nothing is mine. I feel invisible."
Sometimes I feel that I have spent my entire life preparing to be a parent to a 12-year-old adolescent. I’m nervous, yet I am sure. I hold her close—listening, travelling with and learning from her.
I look back at my own life and try to remember the milestones that I have crossed. What inspired me to recover when I was exactly in this place? How can I help this child sublimate her shock and hurt into a creativity that brings happiness?
These are the moments when one realizes how powerful it is to be a parent. Sure, we feel helpless and at a loss. But the stakes are too high. We cannot stay with inaction. We have to seek help. I have to find a way to change her immediate environment.
At this point, I called Aliza in and read all these words out to her. She listened in her calm and quiet way.
I am writing this for both of us to understand our journey. I am sharing this because there is an Aliza in every family I know. There is an Aliza in each one of us. One who wants to belong without being asked to abandon one’s essential self. Who doesn’t want to live by hand-me-down values. Who needs to be accepted and counted as unique. That would be a true homecoming for each one of us.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.